Earth to invade Mars with a summer of rockets
Are we all Martians? Three spacecraft will soon begin a hazardous journey to the red planet in search of life. Some dream of colonising Mars – but the Martians may already have colonised us.
In the next few days, three separate rockets will attempt to beat the odds and send a probe to the red planet. With only a narrow window to complete their launch, timing is critical. The missions have faced delays due to bad weather and technical glitches, but it is after lift-off that the real challenge will begin.
Space engineers describe the mission to Mars as seven months of boredom followed by “seven minutes of terror”. The manoeuvres are so technically difficult, half of the probes never reach their destination – leading some to talk about a Martian curse.
The Chinese, American, and UAE spacecraft will reach Mars early next year, after a 38.6 million-mile journey. The UAE mission will have the relatively easy task of slowing down from 75,000 to 11,000 mph in order to orbit the planet. The other two have the much harder task of actually landing a rover on the surface.
The current expeditions will study the planet’s atmosphere and collect soil samples in order to answer the question: is there, or was there ever, life on Mars? This puzzle has intrigued us for decades and we may be getting closer to finding some answers.
Astronomer Royal Martin Rees says rocks carrying “primitive Martian life” may have “seeded our planet” billions of years ago, bringing life to Earth. If this is true, then we are not heading out into the unknown, we are – in fact – going home.
So, are we all Martians?
Yes. Earth will not be our home forever and if we want to explore the galaxy, we must first colonise Mars and learn to become Martians.
No. Throwing billions of dollars into space will not end poverty or stop the climate crisis. We should devote our imagination to protecting the planet we have.
- Would you like to live on Mars?
- Design a rocket to send astronauts to colonise Mars. It has to be able to land safely and you must take everything you need to survive on the red planet.
Some People Say...
“Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.”Carl Sagan (1934-1996), American astronomer
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that there is no intelligent life on Mars. However, in 1877, the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli noticed channels on the planet’s surface. His observations were wrongly believed to be “canals” made by intelligent life, fuelling excitement about Martian civilisation. But, in 1964, probes sent back photos of an empty, lifeless planet. However, recent research suggests Mars was once warm and wet, and may still have life.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around whether life evolved independently on Earth and Mars. For planetary scientists, it is an incredibly important question. If we are not descended from Martians but we discover signs of life on Mars, then organic matter emerged twice in the same solar system. This would suggest life is much more common in the Universe and that our chances of finding intelligent life beyond Mars may be much greater.
- Narrow window
- Every 2.2 years, the orbits of the two planets bring Mars and Earth within 40 million miles of each other. The current “launch window” will close on the 3 August.
- Martian curse
- In 1997, the journalist Donald Neff went one step further, joking that a “Giant Galactic Ghoul” was living off a diet of Mars probes. Satellite images of “pyramids” and “faces” in the Martian landscape have fuelled theories that there is something mysterious about the red planet.
- United Arab Emirates is a small country that didn’t even have a space programme until six years ago. But, last year, it put its first astronaut, Hazza al-Mansouri, into space and it wants to build a city on Mars by 2117.
- They will join Curiosity, a car-sized Nasa robot that has been trundling around the Gale crater since 2012. Three other rovers have successfully landed on Mars: Sojourner, Opportunity, and Spirit.
- HG Wells’s 1898 science-fiction classic War of the Worlds imagined a Martian invasion of Earth. It was adapted for radio in 1938, causing public panic as listeners mistook it for a real invasion.
- The rovers Curiosity and Opportunity have found evidence of ancient water, as well as the organic compounds necessary for life. However, because of the high levels of atmospheric radiation and toxicity in the soil, any existing life will be buried deep in the ground.
- Astronomer Royal
- A senior post within the British Royal Household, it was established by Charles II in 1675. The king was an enthusiastic patron of scientific exploration, setting up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and granting a charter to the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific institution.